“I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They’ve all come to look for America” – Paul Simon
These days everybody – from the President of the United States to the average person practicing social distancing – seems to be seeking an answer to the same question: “When are things going to get back to the way they were, get back to normal?”
It may be the wrong question.
Of course, we all want to end this sheltering in place business, this great new national euphemism that is giving us an acute case of old-fashioned cabin fever. But do we really want to go back to the same country that existed before this quite damnable virus drove us to huddle like so many frightened children in our homes? Do we really want to be the same people we were when we re-emerge?
After a practically yearlong curiosity-satisfying visit to this country, the highly regarded 19th Century French historian and chronicler Alexis de Tocqueville penned a remarkable work that is still considered to be a valuable treatise on the then fledgling American Republic, titled “Democracy in America.”
That work, which for a great many years helped fashion much of Europe’s view of the brash new nation across the pond, reached a simple, but remarkable profound conclusion: “America is great because America is good.”
What the great man of letters attempted to convey to his not inconsiderable following was that America’s collective greatness was most of all a function of individual American goodness.
And as one who has read a lot of history and one who believes from it might be gleaned glimpses of that which is to come, it seems to me that may well have been true then. But I don’t think it has been true for quite a while, now – long before only the latest contagion to plague mankind infected (likely quite a lot) more than a half-million and killed more than 29,000 (and counting) of us in this country.
Because while it is certainly true that the United States used to be held in what was almost reverence by other peoples around the world, I think that was, to no small degree, fostered by the fact the United States was, at that same time, absolutely revered by United States citizens.
After all, this country of ours was real-life Never-Never-Land. It was the place where dreams came true, where the poor might become affluent, where honesty and justice and freedom were something more that abstract concepts. Or, at least that’s what some of us, indeed, what most of us thought. That’s why those of us of a certain age and above remember reciting the Pledge of Allegiance every day in school. We remember it because it was more than rote; we remember it because we believed it.
This was the breeding ground of greatness and real heroes. This was the beloved stomping ground of Jeffersons and Lincolns and fireside chatters and John Waynes. And there were lots of good guys and they all wore white hats.
But no more. And not for quite some time, now.
“So many wayward pleasures I can now recall, concerned themselves with me, and no one else at all …” – Roy Clark
The American bubble that in retrospect was an essential element of the American dream is burst. Its bigger-than-life greatness lies crumbled around us like the Ozymandias visage of lore, and amid the debris scurry the vermin, which though perhaps always there, often, perhaps too often, went unnoticed.
The American essence ebbed. And despite the occasional populism-driven fretting and strutting, is now basically heard no more.
Our leaders seem now more revolting that revered. Our pledges are more perfunctory than profound. We elect people not on merit, but as the lessers of evils, while all the while blaming it on the very systems we ourselves allowed to be created.
The average American no longer feels that his lot in life is superior to that of his global neighbors, and for that very reason, I don’t suppose it is. Anymore.
So is that what we yearn to return to? Is that the old normal to which we seek return? Or might we set our sights a bit higher?
“The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers” – Wordsworth